In the 1970s, while working in conservative, patriarchal and often authoritarian societies, a new wave of female artists from across Europe started to use and project their own bodies in radical and transformative ways.
Waltraud Lehner was 28 when she took to the streets of Vienna. She was naked from the waist up. She’d built a “movie theatre” around her body, using cardboard and styrofoam.
Her body could not be seen but a curtained front allowed people to reach inside – if invited by Waltraud. She invited men, women and children to reach through the curtain and touch her breasts and body. As they did, she would recite: “This box is the movie theatre, my body is the screen."
It was, she said, a new form of performance art: feminist actionism. She titled the performance "Tapp-und Tast-Kino" (Tap and Touch Cinema).
But Waltraud was no longer called Waltraud. She had become VALIE EXPORT, a moniker stolen from a popular brand of cigarettes and used, she said, to cleave her “of my father’s name, and my husband’s name.”
The year was 1968. They were aware of the swinging sixties in Austro-Germany but this was still a society very much behind the Iron Curtain. The Stasi were operational, the authorities exerting a pervasive control. EXPORT was born into, and could just about remember, Nazi rule. It’s difficult to recall Touch Cinema now without making it sound faintly ludicrous. Why would she do such a thing? What was the point? Equally, it’s difficult to understand the risks EXPORT took, and what the potential costs might be when she stepped outside and took Touch Cinema to the streets.
EXPORT was trying to take control of her body, to treat it like a canvas, to use it as a way of expressing freedom and possibility. She is first among equals in a new group show of 13 female artists, titled Women Look At Women, at London's Richard Saltoun gallery – timed to launch on Valentine’s Day.
The exhibition explores how avant-garde feminist artists, from EXPORT onwards, used and projected their own bodies, bridging performance and photography to make highly progressive social statements. In many cases, the artworks here were met with barely contained fury. Some artists decided to keep the images private as a result. Others were arrested on censorship or indecency charges. Others were denied work, or found no one willing to exhibit them. They were marginalised and isolated, written out of the history books of conventional wisdom.
The Viennese media’s reaction to VALIE EXPORT was one of hysteria, very clearly laced with fear. One newspaper asked whether they might have a witch in their midst. They were witnessing, on their streets, the early genesis of a very potent new force in contemporary art – a form of unencumbered, unapologetic and uninhibited self-portraiture, a projection of identity that spoke of empowerment and self-possession – a trend that has exploded into one of today's global pastimes.